Op-Ed: Why we think the sale of bonds for the Vikings Stadium is illegal

The following editorial opinion by David Tilsen, a resident of Minneapolis, was published in the Star Tribune on January 16, 2014:

Why we think the sale of bonds for the Vikings Stadium is illegal

Someone has to represent the interests of Minneapolis citizens and taxpayers.

I am one of the three people who have filed a Writ of Prohibition to stop the sale of bonds to finance the new Vikings stadium.
I believe that the current funding mechanism for the stadium is illegal, that the project has been tainted by undue influence by billionaires and other monied interests, and that no one, least of all our elected officials, is fighting for the interests of the citizens and taxpayers. This was not an effort I chose, but rather one that has been thrust upon me by history, values and circumstance.

Minneapolis residents have paid for three professional sports stadia in the last 30 years: the Metrodome, the Twins stadium (along with the rest of Hennepin County) and the Timberwolves arena.

Before the Metrodome was built, I worked with other city residents to gather signatures and later overwhelmingly pass an amendment to our city charter, requiring that any expenditure of $15 million for a sports venue be approved by voters. But the Legislature found a way around it.

A court ruled as recently as November that under a later, similar charter provision, the city cannot spend money on a stadium without the required voter authorization. At the same time, Judge Phillip Bush also found that the Legislature overruled the charter, so that in this case a referendum was not required.

The Legislature tied itself in knots over this issue. Legislators were reluctant to override charter provisions passed overwhelmingly by the voters twice, but were told by the Minnesota Vikings that a referendum on the issue would not pass in Minneapolis. Under my naive understanding of democracy, the whole thing should have ended there. If the people we are asking to pay for it don’t want it, then we won’t do it.

Unfortunately, the power of a billionaire, the will of the governor, the persistence of the mayor, and the face paint and horns of the fans led the Legislature astray.

The bill required Minneapolis to levy a sales tax and pay a third of the cost of bonds sold by the state. City officials were assured by the Minneapolis city attorney and the lawyers for the lobbyists that this was legal and constitutional. The truth is, it isn’t.

The Minnesota Constitution does not allow a home rule charter to be overruled in a special law, and the stadium legislation is indeed a special law.

The Minnesota Constitution does not allow the Legislature to require a city to spend its tax dollars to pay bonds sold by the state.

I have been saying since the legislation passed that it looked like it was illegal and that we needed to get the court to rule on it. Zygi Wilf, Gov. Mark Dayton, former Mayor R.T. Rybak and City Council President Barbara Johnson do not want this to happen.

We have appealed the ruling that the Legislature overrode the charter in a special law, but that may take a while to wind its way through the appellate courts. The bond sale was originally scheduled for last August and was delayed many times for various reasons (including our suit), as recently as this week. We did not choose to wait until the last minute; we have been stymied for over a year.

The stadium authority is in trouble. It spent over $27 million before it had secured the financing. But its mismanagement and poor decisionmaking do not make a bad law good.

So we have asked the Minnesota Supreme Court to rule on the legality of the funding mechanism in the law. Now we are told that citizens should not be able to ask a court to rule on the legality of how we spend $1.2 billion on a sports palace, unless they are wealthy enough to bet $50 million on the outcome.

I am confident that the Supreme Court is more fair than that.